Paul Krugman Joins Team Density

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has a very, very big brain. I’ve long appreciated his relentless voice of sanity in political and economic matters. In his latest column he moves outside his usual realm and totally nails it on urban density and car-dependence. Choice sentence:

“Changing the geography of American metropolitan areas will be hard.”

Yup. Uh-huh. Dang.

Interesting how Krugman doesn’t even mention greenhouse gas emissions. Likely a tactic to keep the argument from being muddied by the various stigmas of global warming. He’s an economist after all, and his focus is on what happens when oil becomes unaffordable.

Krugman’s description of the Berlin neighborhood consisting mainly of four and five story apartments further congeals a thought that’s been knocking around my head lately: that ultimately the sustainable urban form of the future will be midrise. In this spicy essay on localism, James Howard Kunstler quips that “skyscrapers are an endangered species,” basically because they are too energy intensive. Midrise (4 to 6 stories) is relatively cheap to build, doesn’t necessarily need elevators, has an agreeable urban form, and can achieve high density (if there are enough of them). Maybe I should shut up about upzoning for taller buildings.  But then again, to achieve viable densities in Seattle with midrise we’d have to take out a whole lot of single family, which isn’t likely to happen any time soon.   

15 Responses to “Paul Krugman Joins Team Density”

  1. Sabina Pade

    100%. Midrise has the further advantage of lending itself to courtyard configuration, which offers residents a semi-private, potentially vehicle-free quiet zone well suited for children’s play and for the orientation of bedroom windows.

  2. Sir Learnsalot

    I read a really compelling article that I cannot seem to find, or else I’d reference it directly. It discussed an urban planner who proposed that we limit buildings to 4 stories, but with _unlimited height_ restrictions. For example, most buildings would be your typical 4 story mid-rise. But since there are no height restrictions you can still build something grand like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London which is only 2 stories tall (technically speaking). Another side-effect would be the elimination of high-rises with too many 10 foot tall ceilings crammed in as a means of maximizing rent income.

    It’s an interesting notion.

  3. Brad

    I like krugmans article, and I’m happy that he doesn’t mention global-warming. In fact, I often hold my nose when global-warming is mentioned as the primary justification for density and better urban development.

    Why? It’s because I think that sprawl and poorly built cities lower our quality of life, even if global warming didn’t exist. Jane Jacobs and other urban designers documented many of these issues before most poeple even knew about global warming. We have a perfectly good rational for density just from a design perspective.

    Additionally, focusing on global warming leads poeple to put more emphasis on automobile mileage solutions, and less on urban design. Slicing Cities in half with an interstate is a bad idea: it doesn’t matter if the cars driving on them get 20 mpg or 200 mpg, it’s still revolting to me.

    Of course, global warming has made poeple more aware of these issues, and I’m thankful that it’s city design problems to our attention. Global warming is one of many arguments for density, it isn’t the only one.

  4. Andrew

    4-6 story midrises with tons of parking aren’t going to achieve real density. We’d need 8 or 9 stories at of current floor plans to get buildings as dense as a four story 1920s brooklyn walk-up apartment

  5. Josh Mahar

    @2: Christopher Alexander was a big 4-story supporter in, A Pattern Language. Another interesting four story argument:
    This guy has designed a city with 4-story high limits that has 1 million people in a 100sq mile area (Seattle is about 140sq miles).

    I am not going to argue for four-stories specifically but midrise should certainly be the norm.

  6. dorian gray

    Agreed with Andrew -once you switch to 6 stories you go to steel which is wildly expensive (expecting 15-20% price bump this year alone) so you might as well go to 8 or 9. I lived in a garden 4 story walk up in Oak Park a stones throw from FLW Unitarian Church -it is true what Sabina said, one feels like its a natural extension of how humanity interacts with streets and housing. Not too feasible in downtown core per lot sizes however.

  7. Josh Mahar

    “100%. Midrise has the further advantage of lending itself to courtyard configuration, which offers residents a semi-private, potentially vehicle-free quiet zone well suited for children’s play and for the orientation of bedroom windows.”

    Perhaps if we built these instead of crappy townhomes or view-specific towers then families would be more willing to give up their SFHs.

    I’m thinking Yesler Terrace would be a good place to test this out. You could probably get llke 6,000 people in there if it was done right. Get a school in there and sprinkle a few diners, comic book shops, and toy stores and this could be one of the best family and low-income projects in years.

  8. Yule Heibel

    First time commenter here (love your blog, btw — recent discovery for me).

    Two things come to mind: (1) The province of BC recently raised the height for wood construction from four to six stories. There’s also an interesting video on a Berlin apartment building that recently went up all in wood — it’s 7 stories (since people here are questioning whether going to 6 stories in wood is safe, I blogged about this on May 13, if you’re interested in reading:

    IOW, it’s quite possible to build tall-ish midrises in wood, but if you go with concrete & steel, you have to go above 8 floors, otherwise the numbers don’t make sense.

    (2) But there’s another factor: I’m not sure about the situation in Seattle, but here in Victoria BC, the typical downtown or inner core lot size is about 10,000 square feet — which is *nothing* much to build on. The only option really is to go high(er). If you want to build European-style mid-rises (with inner courtyards, as per the comment above — and which I agree are a real boon to tenants), then you need lots that are much larger — typically 3 or 4 “standard” city lots, and that practically never happens all at once in a built-out city.

    We do have an office building underway here that has a footprint at least 3x what the average lot footprint is. It was partly an old gas station, partly a surface parking lot, and partly an old building that got demolished: very rare for all three things to come together and become available simultaneously like that. The building’s architect (Franc d’Ambrosio) is a fan of Euro-style midrise architecture, and has designed this office building at 7 stories. (It has its detractors, mainly because many people fear it’s going to look like a huge horizontal whale of a thing.)

    But to have the option to spread out over such a large footprint is the exception — there are hardly ever any lots of that size available for building.

    When a more standard surface parking lot or an infill project comes up, it’s typically 10K sq.ft. at most, and the developers can’t make a decent return on 4 to 6 stories. Plus, imagine the stubby stupid buildings you’d get: essentially, 70s-style stucco boxes of apartments, with hardly any architectural amenity — and you’d have to kiss the backside/ interior courtyard good-bye, as there’s no room for that.

    Aside from that, I have to admit that I also appreciate the aesthetics of taller buildings, much as I think European-style cities are “charming.” But we haven’t really programmed ours like that, and we’re not going to get a Haussmann to flatten entire districts to make large lots capable of handling elegant, well-designed, amenity-packed (courtyards!) mid-rises feasible.

    (Ooh, wish I could preview my comment — feels like I’ve rambled every which way in this tiny editing window! Sorry about that!)

  9. Sir Learnsalot


    Thanks. I think that’s the guy.

  10. Victory Heights

    I love reading this blog. It is usually whip smart and highly entertaining. However, this post, which gives credence to an essay based on “Peak Oil” is really beneath your usual quality. Peak Oil is a totally discredited theory. It only seems to make sense now, because gas prices are rising. But Peak Oil was WRONG for 35 years before it became right. It ignores that goods are substitutable. There will be some transaction costs as we move to other sources of fuel and learn to use less, but the world is not going to fall apart. There are lots of good arguments for higher density. We don’t need to rely on half-baked crackpot theories. What next? The astrological case for less trafic?

  11. Dan Staley

    Peak Oil is a totally discredited theory. …It ignores that goods are substitutable

    Rapidly falling out of favor macro totems aside, evidence please for the discrediting. Empirical evidence, not opinion pieces from, say, Globe and Mail.

    Thank you in advance.

  12. Josh Mahar

    @10: what Dan said.

    Also, though oil might be “substitutable” as you say, keep in mind that oil is probably the most efficient form of energy. Think of it as solar energy crammed and condensed for thousands and thousands of years. Thus, even if there are substitutes they will ALWAYS be more expensive and less effecient in terms of effectiveness per calorie.

  13. Dan Staley

    Further to 10:

    Energy Watchdog Warns Of Oil-Production Crunch
    IEA Official Says Supplies May Plateau Below Expected Demand
    May 22, 2008; Page A1

    The world’s premier energy monitor is preparing a sharp downward revision of its oil-supply forecast, a shift that reflects deepening pessimism over whether oil companies can keep abreast of booming demand.

    The Paris-based International Energy Agency is in the middle of its first attempt to comprehensively assess the condition of the world’s top 400 oil fields. Its findings won’t be released until November, but the bottom line is already clear: Future crude supplies could be far tighter than previously thought.


    For several years, the IEA has predicted that supplies of crude and other liquid fuels will arc gently upward to keep pace with rising demand, topping 116 million barrels a day by 2030, up from around 87 million barrels a day currently. Now, the agency is worried that aging oil fields and diminished investment mean that companies could struggle to surpass 100 million barrels a day over the next two decades.

    The decision to rigorously survey supply — instead of just demand, as in the past — reflects an increasing fear within the agency and elsewhere that oil-producing regions aren’t on track to meet future needs (link). [emphasis added]

  14. Sabina Pade

    To Yule Heibel – America indeed invented the skyscraper. Is it accurate, however, to affirm that our cities aren’t programmed for midrise?

    We might ask residents of Boston, of central Philadelphia, of Washington DC, of Brooklyn, of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Upper East Side, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, SoHo or Harlem whether they all live in highrise towers.

    Doubtless most of the available urban lots in Seattle are of infill size. But is it really true that we almost never have any of generous dimension?

    An I-5 lid… the Clise parcel… the Goodwill site… Yesler Terrace… light-rail excavations… Qwest parking… demolitions of earthquake-susceptible URM structures… International District parking lots… waterfront re-development…

    Perhaps we should consider embracing the legitimate needs and desires of people who would live in cities, were they but given a palatable and affordable option. No doubt, highrise can be thrilling; but what about families, and all the people forced to live on the lower floors, with no view to compensate them for the traffic noise they have to sleep through?

  15. serial catowner

    Well, call me old-fashioned, but I think I’d rather not ride out a quake in a six-story wood building.

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